School Daze

Once I began to see the schools, of course, I could not unsee them. I realized how much of life—and by life in this case I mean real estate—was organized around them. Wealthy homeowners had the resources and the motivation to put time and money into their neighborhood schools; good neighborhood schools in turn attracted other wealthy homeowners. In the 1990s, a Federal Reserve economist named Sandra Black did a study on how much extra parents in Massachusetts were willing to pay for homes in superior school districts. (She studied the home prices in neighborhoods that were directly adjacent to district lines, so otherwise basically the same.) Black found that a 5 percent increase in test scores added 2.5 percent to the price of a home. In New York, where adjacent school zones might have radically different test scores, those 2.5 percent increases could add up quickly.

The principal looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was.

NYC P.S. 11. Photograph by Elvert Barnes.

And then the time came to find Raffi a school.

We had been thinking about this moment, and preparing for it in our way (by scouring the internet for hours for clues), and dreading it since . . . I was going to say since the day he was born, but that would not be true. On the day he was born, and we were alone with a tiny creature that barely knew how to open its eyes—well, on that day our choice of Raffi’s school seemed very far away. And once we got out of the terrifying miasma of his infancy, the thing we needed to find was not a school but a daycare. We toured one that our friends recommended, but it was too far away; we toured one closer by, but it was too expensive. Finally we found one near our place, run out of the garden floor of a brownstone. For a few weeks we didn’t need to think about anything. Then we started thinking about schools.

It occurred to me as we did so that I’d hardly even noticed these large red brick buildings that took up entire blocks. Why should I have? You could not buy a coffee in them, or a beer, or borrow a book—they were just massive buildings that one had to endure on walks through the city. I had no idea what was going on inside them, and I didn’t care. For years, I had done a lot of my writing work at the Starbucks on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. There was a great chicken kabob place across the way from it, and a pretty good pizza place between 1st and 2nd. And also between 1st and 2nd, across the street from the pizza place, there was some kind of school. I laugh at the thought now, at my ignorance. “Some kind of school.” That was P.S. 321! It is the largest and most famous of the Park Slope elementary schools—by some accounts the best elementary school in Brooklyn.

Once I began to see the schools, of course, I could not unsee them. I realized how much of life—and by life in this case I mean real estate—was organized around them. Wealthy homeowners had the resources and the motivation to put time and money into their neighborhood schools; good neighborhood schools in turn attracted other wealthy homeowners. In the 1990s, a Federal Reserve economist named Sandra Black did a study on how much extra parents in Massachusetts were willing to pay for homes in superior school districts. (She studied the home prices in neighborhoods that were directly adjacent to district lines, so otherwise basically the same.) Black found that a 5 percent increase in test scores added 2.5 percent to the price of a home. In New York, where adjacent school zones might have radically different test scores, those 2.5 percent increases could add up quickly.

There was, in addition to test scores, a more complicated factor. The very week that Raffi turned one, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones published a cover story for the New York Times Magazine called “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.” The piece was the culmination of a decade and a half of reporting on education, first for a local paper in North Carolina, then for ProPublica and eventually the Times. In her reporting over that time, Hannah-Jones had discovered that American schools were not only not integrating, but that many were actually re-segregating. School districts that had once been under court-ordered integration mandates had either had their mandates lifted, or the mandates had stopped being enforced. According to Jones, the high-water mark of school integration in the United States came in the late 1980s, with things going downhill ever since. The reasons for this were manifold and complex, but they came down to white parents not wanting to send their kids to schools with black children. And in almost no big city was the problem worse than in New York.

Hannah-Jones’s articles depicted a tragedy, in which individuals who meant well conspired with those who did not to enforce segregation. In her New York Times piece, she described the story of P.S. 8, in Brooklyn Heights, which had for years been a mostly black and Latinx school with low test scores, neglected by well-off parents in the neighborhood who opted to send their kids to private schools. In the mid-aughts, through the concerted efforts of a multiracial group of parents to secure more funding and raise the school’s profile, the school began to improve. This attracted more well-off, largely white families, who were able to bring even more resources to the school. But eventually this second generation of school gentrifiers started pushing the black students out. Why should their kids be in class with a child who had serious behavioral problems, because, for example, he lived in a homeless shelter, or because he had seen violence in his home? Gradually those students and their parents began to feel less welcome at P.S. 8. It is still more integrated than the Park Slope schools, but it is at 59 percent white students and rising.

One of the most depressing moments in the article was a quote from Kenneth Clark, a pioneering black social psychologist whose work on the self-image of black children underpinned the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Clark himself, Hannah-Jones pointed out, had moved from Harlem to Westchester so that his kids could go to school in an affluent, majority-white district. “My children have only one life,” he said. And this, Hannah-Jones argued, was the problem with our country. Everyone, or at least a lot of people, had nice values, in theory. But when push came to shove, they did what they thought was best for the kids. As one Brooklyn parent told Hannah-Jones, “My kid’s not an experiment.”

I couldn’t get the article out of my mind. What it described was horrible. After the election to the presidency a few months later of a white supremacist, it became even more horrible. The diversity numbers in the Park Slope elementary schools began to seem monstrous: 74 percent white; 78 percent white. In Brooklyn? In 2016? We resolved that we would do things differently. Hannah-Jones cited research that the only way to improve our schools and narrow the achievement gap between white and black students was integration. Good old integration. We were white, which meant that we should attend a school where whites were in the minority. In Brooklyn, where we lived, that would seem to have been easy enough. When we started our search, that became our number one criterion. But then we toured the schools themselves, and it turned out to be not so simple.

The first tour we took was at our zoned school. It was not considered a top school. Its test scores were well below the city average—only 20 percent of students passed the state math exam, versus 49 percent citywide, and only 27 percent passed the reading exam, versus 48 percent citywide. But the school had a nice building, with colorful murals out front, and a cute cafeteria, where we picked up our CSA. It was near our house. And it was, on paper, diverse—15 percent of the students were white, 16 percent were Hispanic, and 65 percent were black. Sixty-five percent of students qualified for free or reduced-priced lunch. That, on paper, looked like Brooklyn to me.

The tour took place in December. A group of about thirty parents, some of whom we recognized from the neighborhood, packed into a small classroom and listened for an hour as the (white) principal talked about his philosophy for the school. When he explained that the students followed a “leader in me” program, the room grew tense. This was not what these Brooklyn parents wanted to hear. We wanted to hear about play-based learning, stacking wood blocks, sharing a communal experience. When the principal said that later grades followed the “active learning” Teachers College curriculum, the parents calmed down. Or, anyway, I calmed down. That sounded fine. Then he admitted that the school did not have enough pre-K seats for all applicants. That was a surprise.

It got worse. The principal did not take us into any classrooms, but we happened to see some as he took us on a tour of the building. When I had seen the diversity numbers—65 percent black, 15 percent white—I imagined that each classroom had roughly that proportion of students. But what I saw in the school was something different. The older classes were predominantly African-American and Hispanic. And the younger grades—pre-K in particular—were predominantly white. So were the parents in the tour almost all white. Raffi would be attending a nominally diverse school but he would actually be in a majority-white class. And we might not even get in!

The next school we toured was just a few blocks west, but it was very different. Its test scores were the best in the district. They were not Park Slope level, but they were close, and unlike in Park Slope, the school’s racial makeup was mixed—14 percent white students, 75 percent black and Latinx students. Thirty-nine percent of the students qualified for free or reduced priced lunch. The tour I saw confirmed all this. Rather than thirty white parents for the tour, there were about a hundred racially diverse ones; rather than hosting us in a small, stuffy classroom, we were in the spacious school auditorium. Rather than telling us about how they are hoping to get a new playground in the coming year, the parent coordinator told us that the PTA had an endowment of half a million dollars. “But this school is not just for people who can show up and write a six-figure check,” he said. “This school is for everyone.” I was sure he meant well, but all I heard was “six-figure check.” So some people did show up with six-figure checks.

And, for a school that was apparently drowning in money, it was, unlike our zoned school, genuinely diverse, throughout the grades. As far as I could tell, this was a function of the zones the two schools were in. Our zoned school’s neighborhood consisted almost entirely of brownstones and townhouses, and very few of the apartments were rent-stabilized. The neighborhood had undergone radical gentrification in just a few years (a trend of which we were a part), and the local school reflected that. Meanwhile, this school’s zone was a mix of wealthy, gentrified but racially mixed neighborhoods (including Fort Greene) and also some NYCHA housing. The school clearly prided itself on being both integrated and successful: the leadership of the school was black but the students who helped with the tours were black and white, as were the PTA representatives who led the tours. I knew from a few newspaper accounts and from some parents that the school was not a racial utopia, but from where I sat it looked pretty good. I loved it and also, as someone looking in from the outside at a school his child would probably not be able to attend, I hated it. It didn’t seem fair. As one parent friend who’d also attended the previous tour put it to me, “I can’t believe this school is four blocks away from that school.” But so it was.

By this point I had also started to hate my fellow parents, and myself. We listened to the principals and parent coordinators and nodded our heads in appreciation, occasionally asking ingratiating questions—”Is there room for parental involvement?”—to show how engaged we planned to be. (That was me, actually, on the tour for our zoned school.) We all looked the same and thought the same and the only difference between us was whether we lived a few blocks north or a few blocks east—whether we were zoned for the school we were touring, or not. (Also, whether we owned our housing, meaning, in this case, whether we could easily or sort of easily move.) How did we have time for all this? Didn’t we have jobs? And other children? Why did we think it was so important that our child go to the best and most wonderful school? I loved Raffi but I also had to admit that he was a terrorist who trashed our apartment every morning and every night. He had been kicked out of his daycare for leading the other kids in a rebellion against naptime. “Which one of these schools,” I sometimes thought darkly, “is going to have the pleasure of Raffi’s company?” The idea that sending him somewhere was going to do anyone but ourselves a favor was a little hard to square with the reality of the actually existing Raffi.

Next I toured an old Brooklyn school that I’ll call PS 1. As our zoned school was four blocks east of the more successful school I had just visited, so PS 1 was four blocks east of our zoned school. It was in an old beautiful brick building that I had passed at least a hundred times while walking to and from the C train. But I had never been inside. PS 1, I now learned, was facing some difficulties. It had once had an enrollment of a thousand students; now it was under four hundred. A majority black school, it had been decimated by the gentrification that had taken place in our neighborhood, as old families were priced out and not replaced, at least not yet, with new families. On the day I visited, along with just four other parents, many of the pre-K students were missing. I asked the parent coordinator why. “A lot of the parents live far away, or in shelters,” she said. “When it’s a really cold day out, it’s too much of a journey.”

The other parents asked questions about programs and offerings. “We used to have that,” was the parent coordinator’s answer to all the questions, about one of the after-school programs, about some of the curricular offerings. They used to also have an active PTA, she said, but now the parents worked too many hours or lived too far away. The PTA could use some help, she said.

But at the same time the school was beautiful and warm. The parent coordinator showed us a classroom for early dropoff; it was usually attended in the mornings by a volunteer, she said, or by the principal. It was impossible to imagine the ambitious principals of either of the other schools I’d visited doing free early morning child care. We looked in on an art class, where the students huddled around the teacher as he showed them how to draw a bird. The principal herself was straightforward and honest and was fighting to keep her art and music teachers—those kinds of luxuries are the first to go when your enrollment starts dropping. (Next, you start losing classrooms.) The building, a little run-down, remained majestic. A plaque inside the entrance read, “To the boys of PS [1] who died during the world war.” The school had a low PS number, and later I looked it up: it had been at that spot in Brooklyn since the middle of the 18th century.

So those were our choices: Our actual zoned school, appealing for its small size and proximity but in the grips of hyper-gentrification. The school to the west of us, racially and economically diverse and run like a tight ship, but impossible for us to get into. And the school to the east of us, where almost half the students were chronically absent, where entire classrooms sat unused because enrollment had dropped so dramatically, where there was really no telling how much of the school would remain intact three or four years from now. The school to the east was the just choice; the school to the west was intriguing but out of reach; our zoned school was the laziest choice, though in this case there was a virtue to laziness, in the sense that it mimicked the situation of someone who didn’t have six or seven mornings to kill touring schools. But all the choices were imperfect.

There was, on top of this, another twist. We were living in an old apartment on a loud street above a bar. It was a great apartment when we were just moving in together, and it served us well when Raffi was little: he came to know all the guys who sat outside on the stoops on warm summer days, and the woman who ran the laundromat always gave him a lollipop, and one of the women from his old daycare also liked to sit outside and loved to see him. But the apartment was small, we’d had another child over the summer, neither Raffi nor his brother were great sleepers, and things were getting crowded. Our landlord lived right beneath us and complained constantly (and not unjustly) about Raffi making too much noise above his head. We might be able to stay another year or two, but eventually we’d have to move. So whatever choice we made now with regard to schools was subject to revision or even cancellation, depending on where we ended up. We began talking about moving so much that Raffi picked up on it and started saying that we needed to “tell the construction workers” (they were all over our neighborhood, putting up new houses) what kind of house we wanted. Raffi wanted, he said, to have a front porch, to play on with his friends.

In the end, all our internet research, and all the input from our friends, turned out not to add up to a clear direction. Choosing a school was not like choosing a TV show to watch or even a neighborhood to live in. There were so many factors—your politics, your financial situation, the amount of time you had to take your kid to and from school, and the very personality of the kid! It was impossible to know how your child would respond to a school until he was in it. And it was hard to know how we, as parents, would respond. A white couple we knew was mostly happy with their under-resourced school in Bed-Stuy, because it was close and friendly; a black couple we knew was mostly unhappy with their under-resourced school in the same neighborhood because their son was being shown too much TV. Yet another couple we knew had their kids in a school where the bathrooms weren’t all working. Five-year-olds had to stand in line to pee and sometimes they wet themselves. On one of the school tours I asked if the bathrooms were in good shape, and the principal looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I was.

I mean, I definitely was. We wanted, as a matter of principle, to just go to our neighborhood school. But something weird was happening there. We lived in a corner of Brooklyn that was gentrifying even faster than the rest of the borough. As our Jamaican landlord had once said to me, “First people like you come. Then come the people with the real money.” Those people had arrived.

We also wanted, or I wanted, to have some kind of choice in the matter, to make an informed decision even though we were badly underinformed. We wanted to try to do no more for our child than other people were doing for theirs, because that was bad for both parent and kid, but we felt guilty doing too much less. The reviews we were getting about our zoned school from people we knew in the neighborhood were mixed. One acquaintance was trying to transfer out. Another acquaintance already done so, transferring his daughter to the school to the west. It only took 10 visits to the front office, he added.

That was a lot of visits. That was more visits than I could imagine myself making on behalf of Raffi. I loved the little guy. But ten visits, I had to admit, was beyond me.

The pre-K deadline loomed. All over our neighborhood, I saw kids, black kids and white kids, in T-shirts from the school to the west. Somehow those parents had taken the trouble to get their kids into that school, and what was I doing? I thought about my own parents, who had left the USSR in part—in large part, they claimed—because they didn’t want their kids to have to face anti-Semitic quotas in universities, the way they had to. We had landed first in Brighton, Massachusetts, then Brookline, and finally Newton. We moved there for the schools.

I took a few more tours, and signed up for a few more that I missed. On the last one, at an elementary school a few neighborhoods over from ours, I looked at the walls in the front hall of the school. They were covered in fliers for after-school programs, soccer classes, music classes. It was such a heartbreaking contrast to the bare wall at PS 1, with its lone plaque to the boys who had died during the world war.

At the end of the tour, an interracial couple approached the principal, a tall, commanding woman with a long head of curls. “What do we do for pre-K if we’re out of district?” the man asked. “What district are you in?” she asked. They were in District 17, Crown Heights and part of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, a district with fewer good options than ours. “For K, we can do something,” answered the principal. “For pre-K, we can’t. So just put it in the computer and pray.”

Put it in the computer and pray—that’s what all of us were going to do. And even as I hated all parents, I found I could not hate this couple. Maybe it was just parents in the abstract that I hated; most actual parents seemed OK. They just wanted to do what was best for their child, and probably, like us, they had no idea what that was. If you chose a “good school,” wood blocks, an active and well-resourced PTA, you neglected society, and what sort of parent would want to make society any shittier than it already was? But if you chose society, justice, equality, you chose, a little bit, against your kid—no wood blocks, no after-school enrichment. And, man, you had to have a lot of confidence in the enriching nature of your own parenting to believe it didn’t matter where your kid went to school. I was finding I did not have that confidence in mine. As the decision loomed, society, to some extent, receded. Or, at least, it shrank to a few square blocks. I saw the kids with those t-shirts from that school and I wanted Raffi to have one too.

So what did we do? How did we solve this insoluble problem? We did what we could. We took the one bit of leverage that we had in this system—that we were renters, not owners, and could pull up stakes—and signed a lease on an apartment in the zone of the school to the west. If my parents could move to America from the USSR, we could move a few blocks within Brooklyn. The first person we told about our move was the woman on the phone at the Department of Education. And it worked: last month we received the notification that Raffi was accepted into the school of our choice. My heart sank a little when I saw the email. It meant that we were really leaving behind the neighborhood that we loved, where so much had happened, where Raffi had spent the first four years of his life. And it felt like a compromise that we’d made, though the exact nature of the compromise was unclear: we had followed the directive to pursue integration, but we’d done it in a way (choosing a high performing school) that didn’t inconvenience us too much. Whether in the end this was the right or just thing, and whether Raffi will thrive at this school, I really do not know.

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